Duke Ellington and Holiday Trains


A few evenings ago, I went to the Holiday Holiday Train Show, at the nearby Bronx Botanical Garden. It’s an annual event and it’s stunning. They’ve made models of many of New York City’s famous buildings, and everything is made of sticks, acorns, and similar “natural” materials. They’ve even constructed the NYC bridges and Statue Of Liberty. Model trains and tracks are running through this landscape and the effect, as I hope you can see from the photo above, is spectacular.

The Duke Ellington connection happened as I was waiting in line to enter. They were piping in jazz over the loudspeakers and about 6 neats after a new tune started, a person I was with asked me what song it was. Even though we had only heard a few brief chords, I immediately replied “Across The Track Blues,” by Duke Ellington. (Hey, we all get lucky sometimes!) As it turned out, the Botanical Garden was enhancing the train exhibit by playing songs about trains. It was a nice touch, and they certainly had a lot of material from Mr. Ellington, who composed many train-inspired pieces during his long career. (If any musical “pun-sters” worked at the garden, they might have included some of John Coltrane’s works, too!)

I then recounted a fun story about “Across The Track Blues”:

In 1988, when I worked as Gerry Mulligan’s assistant, he was putting together big band repertoire for his upcoming tour of Europe with his Concert Jazz Band. Although Gerry played mostly original material at the time, he wanted to include “Across The Track Blues,” of which he remembered that he had an arrangement.

This was exiting for a young musician like me, since Gerry told me that he had old photocopies of Duke Ellington’s original instrumental parts, and he asked me to find them on his shelf. I vividly remember standing there with Gerry and we pulled the music out of it’s big filing envelope. I was astonished to see that each part was labelled with the player’s name, or nickname, instead of the instrument. I saw an alto sax part labelled “Rabbit” for Johnny Hodges on top of the stack. No one had looked at this music in decades and the pages stuck to one another. I must have been pretty timid in opening it up, not wanted to tear this piece of jazz history, since Gerry practically barked “just open it up!” I realized that while this was “sacred turf” for me, it was merely part of his life, since he had known Duke and had occasionally played in the band.


All this went through my mind in that brief moment as I stood in line at the Holiday Train Show, listening to Duke Ellington’s unmistakable chords that introduce “Across The Track Blues.”

Take another look at the lovely photo above, and then enjoy the music here. Happy New Year!!!


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